Vygotsky, Mandelstam, and tainopis.

Mark Willis of Blind Flaneur has an essay called A Word is the Search for It: Vygotsky, Mandelstam, and the Renewal of Motive which sucked me in with its focus on Mandelstam and intrigued me by combining him with the psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who I’ve never read (though I have one of his books) but who’s always sounded interesting. The essay begins with the fatal “Stalin Epigram” (see this LH post) and moves on to Vygotsky’s daring use of an epigram from a Mandelstam poem:

The lines come from “The Swallow,” a poem composed in 1920. In it Mandelstam evoked the fluttering of a blind swallow with amputated wings to suggest the restless movement of thoughts that do not become fully realized in words. In Thought and Language Vygotsky tried to elucidate the same process in psychological terms.

Mandelstam turned to the swallow several times in his poems. It represented more than an image of fitful, darting motion. As swallows appeared with the spring in northern Russia, their image in Mandelstam’s poetry also signaled regeneration and return to life. The swallow is a haunting metaphor, too, for the life of the mind shared by poet and psychologist in the shadow of Stalin’s Terror. That life of the mind continues to resonate back and forth in the writing of Osip Mandelstam and Lev Vygotsky. This essay is a search to recover something of that life, to understand how it remains both elusive and resilient.

There’s all sorts of interesting stuff about “inner speech” and other aspects of language development, but let me get to a section on what he calls tainopis (таинопись, defined by the Oxford dictionary as “cryptographic writing”):

By including the words of proscribed writers in his text, Vygotsky employed a literary device known in Russian as tainopis or “secret writing.” More than an allusion, tainopis is an oblique but conscious citation of a writer who cannot be named directly for political reasons. Akhmatova biographer Roberta Reeder described the device as “enforced subtlety” (158). Mandelstam signaled its necessity in The Noise of Time when he hinted at an “interlinear translation” of the 1905 revolution (103). Akhmatova used tainopis extensively in poems written after 1925, including her epic “Poem without a Hero.” In a critical essay written in the 1930s, itself a kind of secret writing, Akhmatova described how Pushkin used tainopis in the nineteenth century (Reeder 226). The long tradition of speaking obliquely about injustice and oppression may be as old as the Russian language itself.

I’ll ask my Russian readers: is this an accurate description of how the word is used in Russian? Then there’s a discussion of one of my favorite Mandelstam essays, “On the Nature of the Word”:

At the heart of Mandelstam’s essay is an expression of Russian nominalism, a belief in the reality of the living word. Gumilev’s poem traces this nominalism to the Bible, but its origin should be understood more accurately as the Greek language into which the Bible was translated. Mandelstam considered Russian to be a Hellenic language in its sense of the word incarnate as flesh and action. The language’s boundless, primal energy could not be proscribed by the state’s or the church’s linguistic forms. “The life of the Russian language in Russian historical reality outweighs all other facts in the abundance of its properties, in the abundance of its being,” Mandelstam wrote. “Such abundance appears to all the other phenomena of Russian life as but an inaccessible outer limit” (75). Throughout the final chapter of Thought and Language, Vygotsky emphasizes the same living, active nature of the word. “It is not merely the content of a word that changes, but the way in which reality is generalized and reflected in a word” (213). “Thought is not merely expressed in words; it comes into existence through them” (218). By quoting Gumilev and Mandelstam, Vygotsky invoked a similar Russian nominalism, although he framed it in psychological rather than Christian or Hellenic terms. “The relation between thought and word is a living process; thought is born through words. A word devoid of thought is a dead thing” (255).

Mandelstam believed that the Russian language “is not merely a door into history, but is history itself” (76). The language preserved a continuity stretching from the oldest Russian folk epics to the Futurist experiments (left) of Velemir Khlebnikov. For Mandelstam, Khlebnikov’s burrowing into the soil of Russian word roots, “into an etymological night,” renewed the life of word and language (75).

I’ve just scratched the surface, so if this sounds intriguing to anyone, I recommend the entire essay. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Tainopis is a technical term which corresponds to English steganography – practice of concealing messages or information within other non-secret text or data.

  2. Ah, thanks — I’ll correct the definition in my Oxford!

  3. A very interesting read. The use of the word “nominalism,” though, jarred a bit: in English “nominal” usually conveys something like “in name only.” “Nominalism” in Medieval philosophy was the doctrine opposing “realism,” which doctrine held (roughly) that words denote something real, or have a real meaning. I haven’t read Mandelstam’s essay, but know enough of him to be fairly sure that his notion of the Word was, like G.M. Hopkins’ , preeminently realist.

  4. I was reading about Vygotsky’s theory of learning just recently. His big idea, apparently, was that children learning to perform a particular task start by needing external aids and then internalise them. He saw both spoken language and writing as key elements of this process – for example, spoken language lets kids tell themselves what to do. Maybe that’s what motivated a claim like “thought is born through words”.

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